Cutting through the bullshit.

Saturday 30 December 2006

What ever happened to Nuremberg?

If you’re wondering where I’ve been, well, for one thing, I got caught up in some discussion on Lenin’s tomb. And I’ve been away. I had to get away from the internet for a few days to read Ilan Pappe’s The ethnic cleansing of Palestine and Ali Abunimah’s One country, which I intend to write something about pretty soon. Actually, I hope at least to review Abunimah before we head off again early Monday.

I’ve always thought everybody knew about the Nuremberg Principles. Even people who had no idea where Nurenberg is were at least aware of the fourth principle:

The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him [sic] from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him [sic].

Anyway, yesterday I followed a link to this remarkable article in the Forward. It transpires that former Israeli army chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon, while on a fellowship at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

was sued by a group of Lebanese citizens who either lost family members or were injured in the April 1996 shelling of the United Nations compound in the Southern Lebanese town of Qana. In the incident, an errant Israeli artillery shell killed 100 civilians and United Nations workers who were in the compound. Israel later apologized.

Errant? Yeah, right! Somehow I had formed the impression that the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity were subject to ‘universal jurisdiction’. Probably something I picked up when the Spanish were trying to extradite Pinochet from the UK a few years ago. Well, that turns out to be wrong. Universal jurisdiction is quite the controversial principle and only a few countries actually think they can prosecute anybody who commits crimes against humanity. It goes without saying that the US is not among them. After all, the US doesn’t even recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC.

Well, that’s not all, because a couple of weeks ago, on 14 December, Judge Paul Friedman ruled

“If General Ya’alon’s actions were taken in an official capacity, he therefore was acting as an agency or instrumentality of the foreign state, and is immune from suit,” Friedman wrote in his opinion, citing the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, which prevents lawsuits against individuals who were acting as part of their official duty.

So what about the Nuremberg Principles?

Is it really possible that the Pulitzer Prize winning ex NY Times journo, Chris Hedges, thinks he’s saying something new? Granted, it’s only today that I got his 18 December article from Jewish Voice for Peace, but it was pretty old stuff even then. His central point appears to be that what the Palestinians are facing is, in the words of his title, ‘Worse than apartheid’. But it was two years earlier, on 15 December 2004, when JVP sent around Moshe Machover’s article, from which I take the liberty of quoting,

To be sure, the two have many features in common. Both are perniciously racist; both impose a degree of separation between ethnic groups. And this is no accident: both are instances of the genus colonial settler state…

But the point is that they belong to two distinct species of the genus. All colonial settlers' societies built themselves up on exploiting the resources of the country that they colonized: primarily its land, which they wrested from the indigenous people, who became dispossessed. The decisive difference between the two species was what was to become of the dispossessed natives.

In one model of colonization, their labor power became one of the indigenous resources - indeed, the main resource - to be exploited by the settlers. The ethnic conflict between the two groups thus assumed the nature of a kind of class struggle. This model is represented, in almost pure form, by apartheid South Africa.

In the other model, the native population was to be eliminated; exterminated or expelled rather than exploited. Israel is an active instance of this model. If you wish to find an instructive parallel, look not at South Africa. Rather, read Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West.

Hedges is also concerned about the prospect of transfer. He correctly points out that the fundamental point of Israeli policy in the occupied territories – the closures, the lockdowns, the invasions, the roadblocks, the missile strikes, the ‘targeted assassinations’, etc. – is precisely to make life for the Palestinians so unbearable that they will pack up and leave. But this is nothing new, either.

Israel…has been given the moral license by the Bush administration to carry out what is euphemistically in Israel called "transfer" and what in other parts of the world is called ethnic cleansing. …the architects of transfer, who once held the equivalent status in Israeli society of the Ku Klux Klan, have wormed their way into positions of power in the Israeli government.

But ethnic cleansing is one of the founding principles of Zionism. Everyone knows the passage from Herzl’s diary in 1895 where he is quite explicit that ‘the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly’. And it has played a central role in Zionist thought ever since. But much more importantly, the state of Israel is founded upon a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing actually carried out over the 1947-1949 period, as conclusively documented in Ilan Pappe’s new book, The ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

The principal difference between Lieberman – of the KKK – and Olmert is that Lieberman is more honest about his intentions. The whole Zionist establishment is obsessed with the ‘demographic time bomb’ and are determined to shed as much of the non Jewish population as they can by whatever means necessary. Every ‘peace plan’ since UN Security Council Resolution 242 has incorporated the concept of ‘the principle of equal exchange of territory’. So what’s that all about? The whole idea is to incorporate areas of the West Bank with high concentrations of Jewish settlers into the Jewish state and to turn over the areas of ‘Israel proper’ with high concentrations of ‘Israeli Arabs’ over to ‘the Palestinian state’ to defer the day when the non Jewish population becomes the majority as long as possible. Exactly what Lieberman says explicitly.

If it’s only now that this is all coming to light for Hedges, maybe he’s right to think, ‘The stark reality of Gaza, however, has failed to penetrate the consciousness of most Americans’.

Meanwhile, over at the NY Times, the editorialists are at it again. I suppose they’ve been partying hard in honour of the festive season. In their editorial sagely concluding

Toppling Saddam Hussein did not automatically create a new and better Iraq. Executing him won’t either.

they write

What might have been a watershed now seems another lost opportunity. After nearly four years of war and thousands of American and Iraqi deaths, it is ever harder to be sure whether anything fundamental has changed for the better in Iraq.

A lost opportunity for what? To ‘bring democracy to the Middle East’? (In this connection, I highly recommend allocating 46 minutes to checking out Robert Newman’s History of oil.) Anyway, it’s nice of them to acknowledge that Iraqis have had to give their lives in the service of ‘our’ great civilizing mission, even though ‘we’ never asked them whether it was what they wanted, much less whether they wanted to sacrifice their lives and their relatives’ lives for it. Obbviously the poll results aren’t reaching the editorial room, because the Iraqis are pretty damn sure that things have gone from bad to worse. Life was better even under the genocidal sanctions, that ‘we’ imposed in their interests for all those years.

About 90 percent of Iraqis feel the situation in the country was better before the U.S.-led invasion than it is today, according to a new ICRSS [Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies] poll.

The editorial continues,

A carefully conducted, scrupulously fair trial could have helped undo some of the damage inflicted by his rule. It could have set a precedent for the rule of law in a country scarred by decades of arbitrary vindictiveness.

You might not be surprised to learn that the scarred country is not the US, but Iraq. But wait, wouldn’t a scrupulously fair trial have brought to light the involvement of the US government in bringing Saddam to power in the first place? And providing him with all kinds of armaments and all the fixin’s for WMD? No telling who he might implicate. Better hang him quick! [PS – A few minutes ago, the Washington Post announced that they’d already done the dirty deed.]

According to Ha’aretz, two Belgian UN peacekeepers became the latest victims of Israel’s fabled ‘purity of arms’ when one of them stepped on one of the estimated 1 million unexploded cluster bomblets the retreating invaders left behind in August. As they both survived, they will not contribute to the toll of 28 killed so far from Israel’s little surprises.

In his latest article in defense of Carter, Norman Finkelstein appears to have really gone a bit over the top. What he seems to be trying to do is to justify Carter’s refusal to debate the abominable Alan Dershowitz at Brandeis University. Carter has been widely quoted, "I don't want to have a conversation even indirectly with Dershowitz, There is no need for me to debate somebody who, in my opinion, knows nothing about the situation in Palestine."

It’s true that ex presidents often speak at public events without the requirement that they debate someone who has slandered them. I think it may also be true that universities don’t always provide a platform for authors promoting their books. Brandeis appears to sport a wide range of academics specializing in the Middle East in general and Israel in particular. Given the wealth of in house expertise at Brandeis, why truck in this torture justifying hoodlum from Harvard Law School? But Dershowitz, to be fair, is probably no more ignorant of the issues than Carter himself. And if he’s really so ignorant as Carter makes out, why not just clobber him. It’s not as if Dershowitz doesn’t deserve the humiliation.

Anyhow, then Finkelstein goes on at quite some length rehearsing the story of Dershowitz’s well documented (by Finkelstein himself) plagiarism of a widely acknowledged hoax – Joan Peters’s 1984 best seller From time immemorial, his attempts to prevent publication of Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah, in which he documents the plagiarism and the hoax, and his refusal to debate Finkelstein. He seems quite justifiably peeved that the plagiarized crap Dershowitz churns out, or perhaps has his students and assistants churn out, receives accolades in the mainstream press while he can’t get his own work reviewed anywhere in the US, were it was published. But what does that have to do with Carter? If Carter had articulated the view that Dershowitz was a charlatan and a plagiarist and an apologist for ethnic cleansing and torture and that he wasn’t about to provide him with yet another platform, or the credibility that would come from debating a recognized expert like himself, that would probably be defensible. But I reckon he’s just being a wimp. I think he’s scared that Dershowitz is more articulate than he is, when he comes out with stuff like, ‘I’ve never and would imply that Israel is guilty of any form of apartheid in their own country’, quite apart from the dodgy substance. Anyway, by endorsing a two state ‘solution’, he implicitly accepts Israel’s ‘right to exist as a Jewish state’, which ultimately makes him an apologist for ethnic cleansing, too.

On a lighter note, check this out – a victory for freedom of expression in Britain!

Friday 22 December 2006

We’re not winning

Writing in today’s NY Times, Jim Rutenberg reports,

Now that President Bush is seeking “a new way forward” in Iraq, he is embracing a new verbal construction to describe progress there: “We’re not winning. We’re not losing.”

The latest shift in the official language of the war is begging the question: Well, which is it? A tie? A draw? Something else?

Well might he ask. But more to the point, in the entire 630 word article, he never gets to the real point – who are ‘we’ and what would it mean to win?

Of course it goes without saying that ‘we’ are the US government. No newspaper anywhere would so much as raise an eyebrow before identifying itself 100% with the rulers of whatever country it happens to be. This is ultimately one of the reasons I always insist that nationalism is the most insidious divisive ideology around. Nationalist assumptions – identification of the people with the state and the elision of class interests – are so ubiquitous they just pass under the radar without anyone even noticing most of the time. Now if Rutenberg had written ‘we white folks’, or ‘we blokes’, it probably would have raised an uproar. But we American imperialists – no problem.

It doesn’t really matter that he doesn’t tell us what winning would entail, because his colleague Sheryl Gay Stolberg quotes the decider on exactly this in another article.

“Victory in Iraq is achievable,” Mr. Bush said, addressing reporters in the ornate Indian Treaty Room across the street from the White House, in a historic office building once used by the Navy. He added, “Our goal remains a free and democratic Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself and is an ally in the war on terror.”

A free and democratic Iraq that can govern itself will become a real possibility just as soon as the invaders leave. It might even be able to sustain itself if the bastards who wrecked all the infrastructure give them a chance to fix it. Reparations might just be in order, if he were serious about this. But clearly, until Iraq has its own nuclear arsenal, it will never be able to defend itself from threats like the US, Israel, or the ‘Coalition of the willing’, maybe not even then. Naturally it must be an ally in the war against terror, but on the face of it, you’d think that actually contradicted the first two of the Decider’s goals. If Iraq is free and democratic in any meaningful sense, then I guess Iraqis will decide who to ally themselves with in which military adventures.

So if ‘victory in Iraq’ means achieving all of those goals, some of which are patently unachievable, then Mr Bush is lying about its achievability. Either that or he’s lying about the goals. Or both. Now it transpires that nobody knows how the Indian Treaty Room got its name, according to the White House website, but anyway, can you imagine a more appropriate place to be talking out the wrong orifice?

Wednesday 20 December 2006

"These People Are Capable of Anything!"

Susie Day in CounterPunch a couple of days ago reported the tragic shooting of a rich white kid at an East Hampton country club on the day of his wedding.

"Face it, prosperous white people own the corporations; they break unions; they're behind environmental degradation; they got us into Iraq--they're nothing but little Eichmanns," declared a professor of Equality and Justice Studies at Red Hook Community College. Victim advocates say this mentality has wormed its way into the police force…"I couldn't stand to see more people suffer because of lost jobs, lowered salaries, the privatization of our infrastructure," the officer stated. "That's why I joined the police force--I wanted to help."

Follow the link for a good laugh.

The blind leading the blind

Ever since I left the states and encountered the sensible practice of using different size banknotes (‘bills’) for different denominations, I’ve thought, you wouldn’t want to be blind in America. Well it seems Judge James Robertson of Federal District Court has finally come to the party, ruling in a case brought by the American Council of the Blind that ‘United States currency discriminates against blind people because bills are all the same size and cannot be distinguished by touch.’ So, what’s so strange about that is that Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, has written an op-ed in the NY Times arguing that it doesn’t discriminate at all. It is just an inconvenience and the blind are responsible for sorting out their difficulties if someone shortchanges them!

It reminds me of that line in Love and death on Long Island, where the main character expresses his bewilderment at the strange US dialect to Irv, the proprietor of Chez d’Irv’s diner, ‘Here in America, you ask for the check and pay with a bill, while we English ask for the bill and pay with a cheque!’

Friday 15 December 2006

Thumbs up

In my dotage, I have come to realize that there are people who don’t seem to mind entertaining contradictory ideas at the same time. A lot of people. Most people. Not you of course. I still don’t understand how they learned this cognitive feat, or why they’d want to. It would embarrass me if I got caught talking out both sides of my mouth.

I first noticed this when I heard people denouncing terrorism, blowing up innocent civilians in cafes and such, and then saying Israel had a ‘right to exist’, as if the very existence of the Zionist state didn’t come about through exactly such tactics. I thought it was something to do with people just having special blinkers when it came to Israel. But eventually it dawned on me that the phenomenon is really much more widespread and general than that.

And now I read that the eminent former Israeli Supreme Court president Aharon Barak, has passed down his final ruling, which, according to Ha’aretz ‘is expected to serve as a legal precedent in international law and war crime law’. It’s a historic event, right? He’ll be remembered for this for a long time to come. You wouldn’t want to look foolish under those circumstances.

For starters, ‘The court ruled that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian terrorist organizations has the characteristics of armed international conflict, and therefore is subject to international law.’ Now there are some who imagine that international law applies to how states treat the human beings over whom they exercise state power, particular those whose territory they have occupied by force and so forth. But clearly Justice Barak can see through such rubbish. And with his superior perception he can also discern that the war between the State of Israel, with the fourth biggest arsenal on the planet, including a now acknowledged nuclear weapons cache, a very respectable arms industry of its own, and billions of dollars a year in no strings attached US aid, and a few bands of Palestinians with slingshots and home made rockets ‘has the characteristics of armed international conflict’.

To his credit, he ‘rejected the state's argument that international law currently recognizes a third category comprising "unlawful combatants."’ Which I think says a lot about the state of ‘justice’ in the US.

But ‘the court ruled that civilians involved in terror activities are not afforded the same protections granted to innocent civilians under international law.’ And fair enough, too.

The court also ruled that, since a targeted killing is essentially an attack on a civilian that is engaged in hostile activities, the attack is only justified if carried out against a civilian currently involved in terrorism. Therefore the IDF cannot target former terror operatives who have distanced themselves from terror activity. [my emphasis]

As I read this, what the judge means by currently is ‘nowadays’, rather than ‘at the moment’. Presumably, former terror operatives who have not distanced themselves from terror activity are fair game. It’s not necessary that a target actually be engaged in combat, or a ‘terror’ act at the time.

A ‘targetted killing’, or ‘extrajudicial execution’, as we call it in English, is ‘justified’ if four criteria are met,

First, "well based, strong and convincing information" regarding the individual's terrorist activities.

Second, "a civilian taking a direct part in hostilities cannot be attacked if a less harmful means can be employed."

Third, an independent, thorough investigation must be conducted after the attack to determine "the precision of the identification of the target and the circumstances of the [targeted killing]."

Fourth, every effort must be made to minimize harm to innocent civilians, and "harm to innocent civilians caused during military attacks (collateral damage) must be proportional."

So, for example, it would be ok to launch a missile at a known Islamic Jihad member having lunch in a Gaza restaurant when there is reliable intelligence that they fired a rocket that morning and were expected to do so again the next day. Obviously, a less harmful means cannot be employed. It would be way too dangerous and difficult to apprehend the suspect, gather evidence against them and prove to a jury that they were guilty as charged. Israeli authorities couldn’t do that anyway; Palestine is a foreign country, right?

Now, imagine an Israeli soldier, in uniform, enjoying lunch in a restaurant in Tel Aviv. By Justice Barak’s criteria, wouldn’t it be ok to ram a car bomb into that restaurant, assuming of course that you didn’t happen to have a precision guided missile on hand, and provided there was a thorough investigation after the fact? Wouldn’t we condemn that soldier for ‘hiding among civilians’?

According to YNet,

The Public Committee against Torture in Israel, which petitioned to the High Court to cancel the targeted killing policy was disappointed that the verdict did not set clear guidelines on how the policy should be used.

which I find decidedly implausible. I certainly hope that the Public Committee was disappointed that five years after lodging their petition on the matter the verdict did not ban extrajudicial murder outright.

Anyway, like I say, I don’t know how they manage it, but I’m confident that Justice Barak will enjoy a serene retirement with a clear conscience.

Just sign here

Every couple of months or so, Jewish Voice for Peace sends me a petition to sign. Sometimes I think I’d like to sign, if only they weren’t so lame. Sometimes I think about writing back suggesting a redraft or something. The last one was just a couple of weeks ago,

We call upon Israeli leaders to end the siege of and war on Gaza. We call upon world leaders to end the political and economic sanctions of Palestine.

The siege and sanctions are sowing chaos and death in Gaza. They must come to an end.

As if ‘Israeli leaders’ and ‘world leaders’ had no idea about the chaos and death they were sowing in Gaza! It doesn’t appear to have penetrated as far as Oakland that Israeli leaders want to sow chaos and death and that world leaders are quite happy to do their bit.

But this time, it’s just insulting. Mitchell Plitnick asks if I can sign a petition that says,

The new Congress should heed President Jimmy Carter's leadership in crafting a Middle East policy leading toward a just peace.

But as I wrote in a recent blog, what Carter is advocating is nothing resembling a just peace. He has made it quite explicit that he does not want Palestinians to have democratic rights and that he insists on Israel remaining a sectarian apartheid state, although he does deny that it is one because the Israeli Arabs get to vote.

Carter is getting more and more support. And not just from the JVP wankers. From people who you’d expect to know better, like the usually antiZionist Jews sans Frontieres.

Meanwhile back on Telegraph Ave, JVP appear to have forgotten that the Democratic Party is just as committed to blinkered US imperialism and to the Zionist project as the Republicans.

Carter's book and the new Democratic majority represent an unusual opportunity for a change in U.S. policy in Israel-Palestine. Congress can pressure Israel to end the siege on civilians in Gaza, halt the construction of the separation wall inside the West Bank, and stop expanding the settlements. Congress can make military aid contingent on restarting peace negotiations in good faith.

Congress can certainly do that, but only if it wants to, as it never has before regardless of which party controlled it. Millions of Americans willing to strike or take action on the streets could force the issue, but not only are they not there, JVP isn’t even suggesting it.

Most Americans believe the U.S. must take an active and even-handed role in resolving this conflict. Yet while AIPAC and other groups lobby for support of the Israeli occupation, we in the silent majority have not mounted a successful challenge. Our voice is not reaching Congress. Unless we join together, Congress will keep ignoring the real obstacles to a just peace.

The US has taken sides in this conflict all along, but now, all of a sudden, it should turn around and be even handed. I assume by ‘even-handed role’ JVP don’t mean the pretense of acting as arbiter, as they did so successfully in Angola. Of course even genuine evenhandedness wouldn’t be good enough if we were interested in a just peace. A balanced approach to the oppressor and the oppressed never has and never can deliver fairness.

Anyway, the silent majority’s voice definitely reached congress on the question of bringing the troops home from Iraq, but it appears to have fallen on deaf ears. So why would anyone in their right mind expect those bastards to be more receptive to this appeal? In any case, I’m not expecting Congress to stop ‘ignoring the real obstacles to a just peace’ at least until JVP comes to the party and realizes that there’s no justice in a bunch of European colonists driving the Palestinians off their land to, in Herzl’s words, ‘form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.’

Jonathan Cook’s new article on Counterpunch explains why Hamas cannot in good conscience recognize ‘Israel’s right to exist’. I was delighted to find that I am no longer the only one rude enough to mention the security of the corridor between Gaza and the West Bank in public.

Israel refuses to demarcate its own future borders, leaving it an open question what it considers to be the extent of "its existence" it is demanding Hamas recognise. We do know that no one in the Israeli leadership is talking about a return to Israel's borders that existed before the 1967 war, or probably anything close to it.

Without a return to those pre-1967 borders (plus a substantial injection of goodwill from Israel in ensuring unhindered passage between Gaza and the West Bank) no possibility exists of a viable Palestinian state ever emerging.

And no goodwill, of course, will be forthcoming.

I’m not actually sure what Jonathan’s position is on the desirability of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Where we differ is that I don’t think there was ever a realistic possibility of a viable Palestinian state confined to those enclaves. And one of the principal reasons for this was precisely the impossibility of securing passage between them.

In another departure from the standard discourse on Palestine, Jonathan makes some very sensible points about the impact of the right of return on Israel’s precious demography,

In demanding recognition of its right to exist, Israel is ensuring that the Palestinians agree to Israel's character being set in stone as an exclusivist Jewish state, one that privileges the rights of Jews over all other ethnic, religious and national groups inside the same territory. The question of what such a state entails is largely glossed over both by Israel and the West.

For most observers, it means simply that Israel must refuse to allow the return of the millions of Palestinians languishing in refugee camps throughout the region, whose former homes in Israel have now been appropriated for the benefit of Jews. Were they allowed to come back, Israel's Jewish majority would be eroded overnight and it could no longer claim to be a Jewish state, except in the same sense that apartheid South Africa was a white state.

I read a lot of stuff about Palestine and at this stage I reckon Jonathan is producing the most interesting analysis I see. Anyone who thinks its worth knowing about Palestine should make a point of reading his articles in full. I’d recommend his website, but he’s pretty slow about updating it. I usually find his stuff first on CounterPunch.

Wednesday 13 December 2006

‘La sombra de Pinochet’

In today’s NY Times, Ariel Dorfman has quite a moving little op-ed.

In order to truly exorcise him from our existence it would have been necessary that he stand trial, that he defend himself from the accusations of murder and torture… In order to cleanse his image from our land, we would have had to witness him looking into the face of each and every one of his victims… Instead we must watch the sad spectacle of one-third of the country lamenting his departure, one-third of Chile still silent accomplices to his crimes… And yet…I feel that something has in fact changed quite categorically with his demise. What convinced me were the thousands upon thousands of Chileans who spontaneously poured into the streets here to celebrate the news of his extinction…we have come out from under the general’s shadow…

Anyhow, I’m delighted to see the bastard go and I’d have been happier if he’d done it sooner. As I wrote at the time, I was disappointed to see his mate Milton Friedman live so long and die so comfortably. Does evil promote longevity or something?

And speaking of Friedman, Greg Palast shows in today’s ICH that the Chilean economic miracle carried out by Friedman’s monetarist Chicago boys was in fact a fairy tale,

In 1973, the year General Pinochet brutally seized the government, Chile’s unemployment rate was 4.3%. In 1983, after ten years of free-market modernization, unemployment reached 22%. Real wages declined by 40% under military rule.

The WSWS reports an article I seem to have missed in the NY Times on the release of 2004 income statistics from the Internal Revenue Service (the US tax department). A few significant findings:

  • In 2004, the richest 0.1%, the 130,500 households with average household incomes of US$4.9 million, saw their incomes rise by 27.5%.
  • Those same 300,000 persons had reported earnings totaling US$639 billion ($679 billion according to the article, but that doesn’t compute), 9.5% of all pretax income, and twice as much as the poorest 120 million persons combined.
  • In 2004, the three lowest quintiles (i.e. 60%, 180 million persons) earned less than 95 cents in real terms for every dollar they earned in 1979, when they started collecting these statistics.
  • The top tenth of 1% of the population earned $3.48 in 2004 for every dollar they earned in 1979.
  • The bottom quintile, or 60 million persons, have an average income of US$7 per day, just over a quarter of the official poverty line of $27 per day.

And that’s the kind of society everyone on the planet aspires to, or else.

Back in Palestine, JSF drew my attention to a concise article on al Jazeera about Israel’s refusal to grant a visa to Desmond Tutu and the rest of his delegation from the UN Human Rights Council for nearly a fortnight. But it transpires that Israel had good reason for this, according to Mark Regev, Israeli spokesperson and final arbiter on all human rights issues,

"We saw a situation whereby the human rights mechanism of the UN was being cynically exploited to advance an anti-Israel agenda. This would do the Israelis, the Palestinians and peace in the Middle East no good at all. This would also have done nothing to serve the interest of human rights."

Tuesday 12 December 2006

A Pakhtun on Burnett's 'Shameless hellions'

The other day, I followed a link from Information Clearinghouse (ICH) to find an excerpt from Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions: Travels with an NPR Correspondent by award winning journalist, John F Burnett. He describes a very conservative society obsessed with ‘honour’, where any mother in her right mind wouldn’t hesitate to murder her own daughter if she had dishonoured the family.

My own experience relating to purda in the Pakhtun area was when I spent an Eid weekend in a village near Mardan, which Burnett describes as a ‘frontier town’, but is actually about 130km from the Afghan border, as the crow flies. In the poor households, women wore the same kind of loose scarves over their hair as you’d see peasant women wearing anywhere. They slipped partly or completely off as much as they stayed on and nobody seemed very fussed about it. Women and girls were a bit shy of the ‘sahib’, but had no problem looking at me, speaking to me, or shaking my hand. When they took me to visit the local godfather, Bader Khan, it was a completely different story. In several hours hanging around with Bader Khan and his relatives and retainers, I never saw so much as a cow or a bitch, much less a girl or a woman.

I sent the article around to a few people, including Khadim Hussein, a Pashtoon student I worked with a bit in Pakistan, who writes,

This is in fact a travelogue by an American who describes the Pushtoon way of life after staying in Peshawar for a couple of days (though he does not mention his duration of stay explicitly) and visited the tribal areas only once in passing. Mr. Burnett mentions only three people—Musarat Hilali (a lawyer by profession), Hasan Khan (who is now working for a private Pushto channel) and one Muhammad Akbar, an unknown Pushtoon tribal elder – as his informants. I would like to give my opinion about the following points of Mr. Brunett's captivating travelogue (which is closer in format to a short story):


Talibanization of Pushtoon Society

Purda (veil) and Burqa

Honour and Revenge

Pushtoonwali, as I understand it as a Pushtoon and as a keen observer of Pushtoon society, revolves around the basic concept of collectivity and collective ownership of culture, customs and traditions. The core value of Pushtoonwali is a consistent consultative process which the Pushtoons call 'Jirga'. It is the Pushtoon Jirga that decides the meaning of every cultural symbol of their society, whether it is the concept of honour and revenge or the concept of their tribal and social rights. Because of their geographical location over a period of centuries, the Pushtoons have had to repel invaders from both east and west on a continuing basis. This has locked them in a state of insecurity and cultural isolation. The Pushtoon Jirga only once asserted itself to form a Pushtoon state when a number of factors conspired simultaneously to weaken the Safavi Empire in Persia and the Mughal Empire in India.

This Pushtoon state could have institutionalised their socio-cultural development, but it was curtailed by the 19th Century British imperialist invasion. The British divided the Pushtoons into several isolated enclaves — in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), Baluchistan, and Afghanistan. This colonization created a socio-cultural vacuum on the Pushtoon soil, intensified their insecurity and made them more conservative in their worldview.

In the early 20th Century, the Khudai Khidmatgar Movement (called the Red Shirts Movement by the British) led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (alias Bacha Khan) and his friends, made a concerted effort to bring Pushtoon society into the mainstream. The movement was based on the concept of non-violence. Its daring leaders established free educational institutions, raised their voice against every kind of discrimination and worked for the socio-political empowerment of the Pushtoons.

The Khudai Khidmatgars 'Pushtoon' remained a harbinger of enlightenment, non-violence, democratic values, world peace and secularism for a long time. This movement could also have helped the Pushtoons emerge from their socio-cultural isolation and could have changed their worldview. But its leaders were persecuted and jailed, first by the British imperialists and later by the Pakistani establishment. This helped the conservative elements rule the roost on Pushtoon soil.

In the Seventies, the US and its allies against the Soviets manipulated the Pushtoons’ sense of cultural insecurity for their own ulterior motives and turned Pushtoon soil into a battleground. They were admired for their 'bravery' and 'honour' and were induced to take up arms again, and so they did. I don't remember that any scholar from the west indicated any conservativeness on the part of Pushtoons during all those decades of war against the Soviets. Religious extremism and Jihad were theoretically upheld by the think tanks across the globe under the US financial and intellectual umbrella.

The Zia ul-Haq regime of the Eighties fully supported this paradigm and did everything to turn Pushtoons into religious zealots. The enlightened, secular and non-violent elements of Pushtoon society were persecuted and jailed during this era. The process of Talibanizing the Pushtoons went on for decades until the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan and the warlords took control of Pushtoon soil.

Veiling women (purda), and especially the burqa, had never been strictly observed in Pushtoon areas. Mr. Burnett must have seen only the villages in the suburbs of Peshawar populated by Afghan refugees where the culture is more conservative and requires the burqa. I wish he could have also visited Charsadda, Swat, Malakand, Buner and Swabi, where he would have observed few veiled women. In most of the tribal areas, the women work on farms and never wear the veil.

It is sheer exaggeration to say that the burqa is ubiquitous, even in Peshawar city. Mr. Burnett was staying at the Pearl Continental Hotel, only 20-25 minutes from Peshawar University, where he could have met Pushtoon women from different areas study different courses. He could not only talk to them but also exchange views regarding purda and the burqa. Mr. Burnett has exaggerated the generality of this issue in his travelogue.

The concepts of honour and revenge in Pushtoon society arise from the Pushtoons' insecure feelings due to the political factors I’ve mentioned. But to say that honour and revenge is the core of Pushtoonwali displays sheer ignorance of the Pushtoon way of life.

The core of Pushtoonwali, in my view, is freedom and social cohesion on a consultative basis. Pushtoons never like to be dictated to and vigorously resist any attempt to tell them how to behave. This does not prove that they are Talibans. Moreover, despite conscious efforts by the American and Pakistani agencies to prove them extremely conservative for all these years, they have actually become significantly more flexible.

I myself have married a woman I loved and nobody has harmed me or my wife (who is now the mother my two kids) because of this. There are honour killings but they are not particular to Pushtoon society. Baluchis, Sindhis and even Punjabis are involved in honour killing, while most Pushtoon men and women have been struggling to end this phenomenon. There are a number of Pushtoon women, not in scores or hundreds but in thousands, who have been working for the socio-political and economic development of the Pushtoons for a long time. They are all secular, non-violent and enlightened. It is unfortunate that Mr.Burnett only managed to meet Musarat Hilali.

A small part of Pushtoon society might hold extremist views but this is so in every society. Mr Burnett generalizes from his limited experience out of sheer ignorance or as intentional distortion, in accordance with the policy of the Pakistani establishment for many years.

Monday 11 December 2006

Too smart

Today’s Ha’aretz reports that

Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking on Sunday told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he has noticed a marked deterioration in the situation in the Middle East since he last visited the region in 1990.

Whatever that may mean.

Two weeks ago, on 28 November, 1,015 students and 113 staff at Birzeit University issued a statement of support (linked from for Irish academics and calling for a comprehensive academic boycott.

Regarding the academic boycott proposal, I am tepidly supportive of a boycott for its symbolic value. However, I have three sets of reservations about the tactic:

1. An ordinary consumer boycott mobilises people at their weakest, as powerless consumers in the marketplace, to target their consumption on a basis other than strict economy. We can exercise our power much more effectively in our workplaces and on the streets. Even insofar as a consumer boycott may be effective, it disempowers its participants. By accepting the illusion that in boycotting Israeli goods they are doing something, some, perhaps a majority, may come to believe they are doing enough.

The proposed academic/cultural boycott disempowers ordinary people even more than a traditional consumer boycott. Decisions on what to boycott and when are left entirely in the hands of vice chancellors, journal editors, conference organisers, museum curators, and the like.

It does, however, provide scope for ordinary people to take action in our workplaces and campuses and on the streets to encourage compliance with the boycott on the part of those with the power to implement it.

2. I am not optimistic about the efficacy of a boycott of this nature. Even a full fledged economic and diplomatic boycott is unlikely to have the desired effect on Israel as long as the US is prepared to bankroll the Zionist project. It is worth remembering that the basis of Zionism is that Jews are entirely separate from the rest of humanity and need to do things on our own. It is easy to envisage Israeli academics, artists and athletes saying, ‘The hell with the Goyim. We’re better than they are anyway and it was always a waste of time sharing our profound ideas with them, competing with them, and displaying our sublime artistic works to them.’ It would be imprudent to underestimate Israeli arrogance.

3. While the majority of Israeli academics are probably fully supportive of Zionism, ‘transfer’, the occupation of 1967, etc. and eminently deserving of censure and ostracism, trying to exclude them from the global academic community has the potential to backfire. Academic journals purportedly publish articles on the basis of the contribution they make to the discipline. Of course in practice this is never the only, or even the main, criterion. But the nature of the proposed boycott undermines the principle. Once it is established as acceptable to exclude contributions from those who live under repressive regimes, this principle can easily be extended to victimise academics living under the oppressive regimes of official enemies as well as official friends.

The existence of a Palestinian campaign in favour of the boycott, however, definitively trumps my reservations.

Furthermore, as Laura Ribeiro, coordinator of the Right to Education Campaign, arged in CounterPunch in June, there is already a de facto boycott against Palestinian academics and academics concerned with Palestine,

It is increasingly apparent that any academic activity – be it research, debate or voluntary work – on the mere subject of Palestine, in Palestine, is either obstructed or forbidden. So while Israeli academics and political figures are busy mobilizing their supporters worldwide to protect the academic freedom of their intellectuals and institutions, other academics, researchers and students exercising their academic freedom in Palestine, are effectively being boycotted. The objective of this boycott is to thwart the advancement of Palestinian educational institutions, networks and discourse, and although any nationality can be subjected to it, its target is in fact the constitution of Palestinian education itself.

An issue that the campaign does not appear to have considered is that many Israeli academics seem to have affiliations with overseas institutions. This poses additional questions. To allow them to contribute to academic discourse wearing a different, non Israeli, hat would seem to undermine the boycott and particularly to favour the Israeli academics in most esteem abroad. In my view, the boycott would be a travesty unless one of its objectives is to strip Israeli academics of their affiliations with foreign universities.

The letter to the Irish academics enjoins a boycott that excludes certain individuals,

We therefore urge international civil society and the academic community to join our call to comprehensively boycott Israeli academics who contribute or refuse to stand up against the occupation. [my emphasis]

And this certainly seems consistent with the version of the Campaign statement on the Bir Zeit University Right to Education Campaign site,

Exclude from the above actions against Israeli institutions any conscientious Israeli academics and intellectuals opposed to their state’s colonial and racist policies

Curiously, this wording is absent from the version of the Campaign statement on the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel site.

On CounterPunch a couple of years ago, Omar Barghouti wrote,

The price that some conscientious academics may pay as an unavoidable byproduct of the boycott is quite cheap when compared to the price Palestinian academics, and indeed Palestinians at large, have to pay for the lack of boycott or any similarly effective pressures on Israel.

I’m pretty sure that his position is that it will not do to make exceptions for sympathetic Israeli academics, even, indeed, especially, if they support the boycott. And I have to concur. Apart from the thorny question of determining who is conscientious and who is not, to exempt them would put them in the invidious position of taking action to undermine their colleagues without being willing to accept the consequences themselves. If they genuinely support a boycott of Israeli academics, that has to mean they are prepared to suffer the effects themselves.

Anyway, it seems that notwithstanding the ‘marked deterioration in the situation’, Professor Hawking is too smart to have to support the boycott.

Sunday 10 December 2006

Carter's support for democracy

Yesterday’s CounterPunch featured a short piece by Norman Finkelstein where he argues,

It seems Israel's "supporters" have conscripted me in their lynching of Jimmy Carter. Count me out. True, the historical part of Carter's book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, contains errors in that it repeats standard Israeli propaganda. However, Carter's analysis of the impasse in the "peace process" as well as his description of Israeli policy in the West Bank is accurate - and, frankly, that's all that matters.

Now I have plenty of respect for Finkelstein, but I have to disagree – those are not the only things that matter. As a matter of fact, by enclosing ‘peace process’ in scare quotes, I think he is himself indicating that there are more fundamental things at issue than just an impasse. Israeli policy in the West Bank is certainly very important, but not, I would argue, more important than Israeli policy in Gaza, in Lebanon, in Jerusalem (if that’s separate from the West Bank), than Israeli policy towards Iran, or Palestinian citizens of Israel, or the 1948 refugees.

A lot of people seem to be rushing to Carter’s defense. But I can’t say I understand why they would want to.

In an article on CounterPunch about a month ago, Norman Finkelstein quoted some ‘key statements’ from Jimmy Carter’s new book on Palestine, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, among them,

The United States has used its U.N. Security Council veto more than forty times to block resolutions critical of Israel. Some of these vetoes have brought international discredit on the United States, and there is little doubt that the lack of a persistent effort to resolve the Palestinian issue is a major source of anti-American sentiment and terrorist activity throughout the Middle East and the Islamic world. (pp. 209-10)

I suppose it must be to Carter’s credit that there was only one such Security Council veto exercised during his administration, against draft resolution S/13911 on 30 April 1980. That draft, moved by Tunisia, basically reaffirmed previous UN resolutions calling for Israel to withdraw from the territories it had occupied since 1967 and so forth.

US Ambassador McHenry concluded his statement explaining the Carter regime’s objection to the draft resolution,

I know that in many quarters there is skepticism that negotiations in this [Camp David] framework can succeed. The road ahead will be difficult. But together with Israel and Egypt, we ask only that we be judged on the results we obtain.

…It is to the end - the attainment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East - that my government has committed itself. We solemnly reaffirm that commitment here today.

The United States will oppose the resolution before us. [emphasis added]

Thanks in large measure to the cynicism of Carter, his predecessors and successors, twenty-six years down the track, the results he obtained in this way are no peace and certainly no justice. But it seems he no longer wishes to be judged on that basis. As the old saying goes, ‘Embarrassing a politician with accusations of hypocrisy is like embarrassing a dog with accusations that he licks his own balls.’

Thursday’s (7 December) NY Times reported that former Jimmy Carter aide, Kenneth W. Stein, a professor of Middle Eastern history and political science at Emory University, resigned his titular position as ‘a fellow with the Carter Center on Tuesday, ending a 23-year association with the institution’.

In a two-page letter explaining his action, Mr. Stein called the book “replete with factual errors, copied materials not cited, superficialities, glaring omissions and simply invented segments.”

It’s hardly surprising that a book with a title associating Palestine and apartheid would attract this kind of criticism. In the immortal words of distinguished Harvard Law professor and rabid Zionist ideologue, Alan M Dershowits, in his FrontPageMagazine review of the same book, ‘Sometimes you really can tell a book by its cover.’

At the same time, admittedly without reading the book myself – just based on what Carter himself says about it, it is plausible that it is indeed ‘replete with factual errors’, as Finkelstein acknowledges, although perhaps not the ones Stein and Dershowits identify.

Last Thursday (30 November), Democracy Now! broadcast Jimmy Carter’s 28 November speech ‘at an event in Virginia’. Sometimes I wonder about young Amy’s selection of what to broadcast. I suppose it’s significant that the great Nobel Peace Laureate and global guarantor of electoral transparency has articulated a position on the ‘Arab-Israeli conflict’ that is so controversial that the mainstream media won’t touch it. But ultimately, he’s not saying anything new. Not even for someone with his profile. Not even characterizing Israel as an apartheid state, contrary to the impression the title of his book might give.

I’ve never and would imply that Israel is guilty of any form of apartheid in their own country, because Arabs who live inside Israel have the same voting rights and the same citizenship rights as do the Jews who live there.

And for another thing, as this quote illustrates, the poor old guy is so inarticulate that it’s embarrassing to listen to him, quite apart from the substance of what he has to say. I don’t recollect whether he was always so tongue tied, or whether advancing age has taken a toll. I feel safe in assuming he and his editors exercise greater care with his written work, but still, perhaps not quite enough.

More importantly, the thrust of his talk was to identify ‘three options that Israelis face’. It’s significant that his sole concern is apparently with Israelis’ choices. But he’s right to think that ultimately this is likely to be a determining factor in the feasibility of any outcome.

For reasons that elude me, he ascribes the first option to Olmert,

a forceful annexation of Palestine and its legal absorption into Israel, which would give large numbers of non-Jewish citizens the right to vote and live as equals under the law.

He rejects this for a number of reasons. First and foremost, in his view, ‘This would directly violate international standards and the Camp David Accords’.

The second rejected option is ‘the taking of substantial portions of the occupied territory with the remaining Palestinians completely surrounded by walls, fences and Israeli checkpoints’, the position I associate with Olmert’s ‘disengagement’ plan, under whatever the currently fashionable name might be.

What he’s advocating is more or less exactly the Geneva initiative, for which he takes credit (or accepts blame, depending on your perspective),

I was involved, in some ways, in the preparation of the Geneva Initiative, and I was there and made the keynote speech in Geneva when this initiative was prescribed.

This is the only option he can characterize as ‘acceptible’. I’m going to resist the temptation to quote him at length, but here is the rationale he articulated on CNN,

To incorporate the Occupied Territories into Israel and have just one state, I don't think that would work, and I’ll tell you why. First of all, the Palestinians, if they were given a right to vote on an equal basis with all Israelis, they would play a major role in making decisions about the whole country. And with the rapid population growth of the Palestinians, which in Gaza is 4.7% a year, one of the highest of the world, and in the foreseeable future the Palestinians would actually have a majority in that nation. So I think the only real practical solution is to have two states, side by side, in their own territories living in harmony and peace. That’s I think the best and most likely approach.

On 28 November, Amy Goodman did a 25 minute interview with Rashid Khalidi, identified on the Democracy Now! site as ‘Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies and the Director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University’ and Ali Abunimah, ‘creator and editor of The Electronic Intifada’.

This was the first time I’ve heard Khalidi speak, but Abunimah is a frequent guest on KPFA’s Flashpoints program. They both have new books out (The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood and One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, respectively) which are on their way from Amazon and I definitely intend to read them soon, although I might have to prioritise Ilan Pappe’s new Ethnic cleansing of Palestine, and I have enough trouble keeping up with what I think I need to read on the web.

In response to Amy Goodman’s question about the one state solution in the context of the clip from Carter I just quoted, Abunimah responded, quite accurately,

He’s saying that the reason to oppose a one-state solution is because it would be democracy. That Palestinians would have an equal rights, one person, one vote, and an equal share in deciding the future of the country.

What he left unsaid, probably out of a concern for diplomacy, is what could possibly motivate Carter’s cavalier attitude to democracy. Why would he support a ‘solution’ as ‘the best approach’ explicitly because he believes it precludes a Palestinian majority? As I have no stake in diplomacy, I’ll call it by its name. Carter’s objection to democracy in Palestine is motivated by racism – he can’t abide the prospect of a sectarian Jewish state not existing in Palestine.

Rashid Khalidi’s response pointed out that on the one hand,

anybody who wants to talk about a two-state solution has to talk about how how you would reverse the trends that have been ongoing for at least four decades. The annexation of Palestinian land, the usurpation of Palestinian property in order to create the settlements, the chopping up of the West Bank into cantons, the erection of a matrix of control.

On the other hand, however, ‘both Palestinians and Israelis are very attached to the idea of having their own state’. I agree that it is particularly significant that the vast majority of Israelis would utterly reject the idea of a secular state with even the potential for a non Jewish majority. These are the same people 65% of whom just a few months ago were willing to admit to a pollster that they would not live in the same building as an Arab. As far as I’m aware, the poll didn’t ask about whether respondents would embrace an Arab son in law, but I think it indicates a very high level of racism.

On this basis, I am inclined to agree with anyone who suggests that a unified democratic secular state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan is an implausible outcome. Obviously, I haven’t read Ali Abunimah’s book yet and he might make arguments there that would persuade me to reverse my position. Furthermore, I have not yet finished reading Virginia Tilley’s One-state solution. However, I gather from correspondence with her that it does not contain a concrete proposal to overcome the barrier of Israelis’ anti Arab attitudes.

That said, Rashid Khalidi has summarized some of the obstacles to a two state ‘solution’. In my view, the principal arguments against a two state arrangement are that its intent is to entrench one racist, sectarian ethno-religious state and to create yet another. But on a more concrete level, there are two specific issues that I think decisively show that it is not a realistic possibility.

To give credit where credit is due, Carter is one of the few who even mentions the little matter of the corridor between Gaza and the West Bank,

And remember that Gaza is on the sea coast, where the Philistines lived during the time of King David, and it’s separated by 40 kilometers, about 30 miles, from the rest of Palestinian territory. So in order for a Palestinian to go from Gaza to the West Bank, they have to go through 30 miles of Israeli land, though that’s just a geographical description.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, that’s all he has to say about it. The Geneva initiative envisaged ‘engineering solutions’, presumably causeways or tunnels, so that the corridor would ‘not disrupt Israeli transportation and other infrastructural networks’ (Article 6.i.d.). It goes without saying that there is no question of Palestinian sovereignty over the corridor – that would disrupt Israel’s territorial contiguity. But there is no causeway so high or tunnel so deep that Israeli forces could not disrupt traffic between the two Palestinian enclaves if they were so inclined. We have already observed Israel’s commitment to intercourse between Gaza and the West Bank - since they signed the Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) over a year ago on 15 November 2005, which ‘promised Palestinians freedom of movement of people and goods…none of the agreement's provisions have been fully implemented by Israel.’ In other words, the level of good will on Israel’s part that would make a separate non Jewish Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza a real possibility is no lower than what it would take to create a secular state.

The other issue, which Rashid Khalidi mentions in passing, is ‘the expulsion of a majority of the Palestinians from their homes’ in 1948. Estimates tend to range between 750,000 and 900,000 Palestinians who became refugees in the ethnic cleansing operation that created a long yearned for Jewish majority for the Jewish state. I hasten to add that it doesn’t matter whether they left ‘voluntarily’ or not – most refugees are not literally driven out at gunpoint - they are still entitled to return. The survivors and the descendents of those refugees now number as many as 5 million. From what I’ve heard him say, Ali Abunimah’s parents are 1948 refugees and Rashid Khalidi’s parents may very well be too. So it could be because they feel they have a vested interest in the refugee issue that they don’t raise it.

Any solution to the so called Israeli Palestinian conflict worthy of the name must provide for the refugees’ right to return. The Geneva initiative provides for Israel to determine the number of refugees permitted to return to the areas they fled (Article 7.4.v.c.). While it goes a lot further than those who never even consider the issue, it doesn’t even meet the minimal standards of justice accorded by UN Resolution 194, which at least allows that ‘the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return’ (Article 11; my emphasis). In other words, it is up to the refugees themselves, and not someone purporting to negotiate on their behalf, to decide whether or not to return, and the place they are entitled to return to is not some arbitrary place, but ‘their homes’. Even if only a small fraction of those currently languishing in refugee camps were to decide to exercise their right, if it were a meaningful right – to return to their homes - it would almost certainly entail a non Jewish majority within the Green Line. The compensation due to those choosing not to exercise their right, if it were just, would almost certainly bankrupt Israel.

As I read it, therefore, any two state arrangement that provides the minimum just redress for the 1948 refugees would create a non Jewish majority in the Jewish state, which is precisely why the Zionists reject the right of return as ‘national suicide’. The inevitable outcome of two states in historic Palestine turns out to be two non Jewish Palestinian states, which defeats the purpose.

But of course, since the purpose of the two state ‘solution’ from the 1947 UN partition resolution to the Geneva initiative and the Road Map is precisely the creation or retention of a sectarian racist ethno-religious Jewish state, the question of justice - for the refugees or anybody – doesn’t arise. And in the absence of justice, there will not be peace.

'Justice demands it'

According to the Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’ site,

Ted Honderich is the Grote Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic, University College London…He is presently chairman of the Royal Institute of Philosophy.’

Like, wow! So there must be something significant in there?

We cannot settle such fundamental questions of right and wrong as that of Palestine and so on by the common recourses to international law, UN resolutions, doctrines of human rights or our hierarchic democracy. Rather, for consistency and other reasons, we need a fundamental principle of right and wrong. This is the principle of humanity. It is, in short, that we must take actually rational steps, as distinct from political pretences and the like, to get and keep people out of bad lives, the latter being defined in terms of lacks and denials of the great human goods.

Now, I don’t know about these ‘fundamental questions of right and wrong’ he’s on about, but I’m with him as far as rejecting the ‘international law’ nonsense. But I guess that’s where we part company. Doubtless he is assuming some well known corpus of philosophical reasoning that I have no familiarity with, but then, he’s writing for a lay audience. Frankly, in that or any other context, I’m surprised that a philosopher thinks he can get away with ‘consistency and other reasons’, especially without explaining what it is that consistency demands. International law is certainly full of inconsistency. But at least a codified system allows identification of the specific inconsistencies. For the sake of consistency, however, he prefers a vaguely defined ‘principle of right and wrong’ otherwise known as ‘the principle of humanity’?

So what is this principle? To ‘take actually rational steps…to get and keep people out of bad lives’. ‘Actually rational steps’ is a concept itself begging definition, although at least we know that they are ‘distinct from political pretences and the like’. As for ‘bad lives’, they are ‘defined in terms of lacks and denials of the great human goods’. I didn’t realize that philosophers were supposed to be able to get away with this kind of slovenliness. To assert that red is defined in terms of the electromagnetic spectrum is not the same as to define red. To assert that bad lives are ‘defined in terms of lacks and denials of the great human goods’ not only fails to define bad lives but also deploys other undefined concepts.

The real question is where this gets us. And the answer is not long in coming.

This morality of humanity includes certain propositions. It justifies Zionism, not vaguely understood but taken as the founding and maintaining of Israel in roughly its original 1948 borders.

The impression you start to get at this point is that when you start out from vague, undefined, assumed principles, it can lead just about anywhere. And sure enough, the philosopher cuts right to the chase. ‘Actual rational steps…to get people out of bad lives’ logically entails espousing a particular view of Zionism. For Honderich, unlike the founders of Zionist thought and many other adherents and critics of Zionism, it means the colonial occupation of an ethno-religious sectarian state ‘roughly’ within its 1948 borders. I suppose we can leave aside the little problem that those borders of 1948 were never actually defined – the Green and Blue lines, as I recollect were just provisional ceasefire lines. Certainly Israel never accepted them as borders and still doesn’t. More to the point, when he says ‘roughly’, it becomes clear that he doesn’t accept them either. What counts as ‘rough’? Is the Litani River, for example, ‘roughly the Blue Line’? Is the Jordan River ‘roughly the Green Line’? We’re not talking about long distances here.

But I’m just having a go. Really, I know just what he means, although I can’t see any reason to let a prominent philosopher get away with ‘You know what I mean, dude’. What he means is that he wants Israel to withdraw to the Green Line, except for a few adjustments to take into consideration ‘facts on the ground’, like the huge settlements Israel has been establishing precisely and quite explicitly to create ‘facts on the ground’ that philosophers will later have to take into consideration when determining what is just and fair and ‘actually rational’. And like the famous Geneva initiative, the Palestinians will be compensated for the territory lost to the facts on the ground with ‘roughly’ equivalent areas within ‘Israel proper’. Sometimes this exchanged territory is supposed to be a bit of desert adjacent to Gaza. Sometimes areas with high concentrations of ‘Israeli Arabs’. Just to be fair, you understand. Never something actually useful, like sovereignty over a secure corridor between the West Bank and Gaza. That would undermine Israel’s territorial integrity! Absolutely out of the question!

But at a more fundamental level, what he’s really saying here is that colonizing 78% of Mandatory Palestine, notwithstanding irrelevancies like the UN partition plan of 1947, with all the ethnic cleansing, massacres, and terrorism that went along with that, satisfies the philosophical requirements of justice, fairness, ‘the morality of humanity’, but

The morality of humanity also condemns neo-Zionism, understood as the taking from the Palestinians at least their freedom in the last fifth of their homeland.

Insofar as this gibberish is intelligible at all, I think what he’s getting at is that he believes there is a separate ideology, distinct from what he has defined Zionism as, which covets the remaining 22% of Mandatory Palestine. In reality, of course, conventional Zionism has always had this property, but the point is not really to quibble over how Honderich defines terms. The point is to discern the philosophical principle that can make this distinction between colonizing and ethnically cleansing a particular tract of land, but not too particular, just roughly particular, remember, and colonizing and ethnically cleansing another, adjacent bit of land.

There are in fact arguments that make this distinction. The whole ‘two state solution’ school of thought depends on making it. But they always couch it in quite specific terms. UN General Assembly Resolution 273 effectively accepted Israel’s existence within the ‘1948 borders’, although it also called on Israel to implement certain obligations, such as compliance with Resolution 194 on the refugees’ right of return, which Israel agreed to at the time, but never actually implemented. That is the basis for believing that Israel within the 1948 ‘borders’ has a ‘right to exist’. UN Security Council Resolution 242, demanding that Israel withdraw from the territory acquired by conquest in the 1967 war provides the basis for excluding those territories from Israel. Professor Honderich is quite right, in my humble estimation, to reject making this distinction on so arbitrary a basis. After all, why should territory acquired by force in 1948 be sacrosanct, but not territory acquired by force in 1967? The conclusion I draw is that there is no distinction – it was never legitimate to turf the Palestinians out in the first place and no amount of UN resolutions is going to change that. But obviously I lack the subtlety of a distinguished philosophy professor who discerns that there is indeed a distinction which derives transparently from ‘the morality of humanity’.

In what looks suspiciously like a non sequitur, Professor Honderich proceeds to assert that

It [the morality of humanity] gives to them a moral right to their liberation-terrorism against neo-Zionism in historic Palestine, including Israel.

And yet

The morality of humanity judges 9/11 to have been monstrously wrong, an irrational means to ends that included resistance to neo-Zionism.

If I am following the argument correctly, the morality of humanity, which he has adopted in the interests of consistency, among other things, permits acts that he is willing to characterize as terrorism on those who are directly or indirectly responsible for the depredations of ‘neo-Zionism’. This morality also sanctions attacks on those, like small children, who are perceived to benefit from those depredations, or who may grow up to perpetrate them. It is ok to commit terrorist acts against these people if they happen to be located somewhere in historic Palestine. But if anyone commits such acts against similar targets in New York, the same moral principle condemns their acts as monstrously wrong and irrational. I suppose this geographical principle of morality is in some bizarre way consistent with the geographical or chronological distinction between the moral justification of the occupation of ‘roughly’ 1948 Israel and the moral condemnation of the occupation of the territory occupied in 1967.

This may not be the place for an exhaustive discussion of the rationality of terrorism. But I believe you can make a case that the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001 succeeded in drawing the US into military adventures which have weakened it. We have no way of knowing what the actual objectives of the perpetrators were, but it is certainly possible that they worked out the probable outcomes. I would characterize that as rational. Palestinian terrorism against Israeli targets of any kind may or may not be morally justified within Honderich’s or someone else’s framework. But there is little doubt that it is thoroughly irrational. Decades of experience have shown that it has never succeeded in driving the military occupation to retreat, or even in displacing settlers in significant numbers. What it has done is to provide the Israeli state with a pretext to exacerbate the oppression of ordinary Palestinians in ways that are amply documented everywhere daily. There are other factors involved, like residual Holocaust guilt and the diplomatic protection afforded by the US with its UN Security Council veto, but acts of individual terrorism are widely perceived as a valid excuse for Israel’s routine violations of such niceties as the laws of war and occupation. Like any small scale retail terrorism, by substituting the acts of courageous or foolhardy martyrs for the mass activity that can really bring changes about, all of these acts are ultimately counterproductive, and therefore irrational.

The balance of the article is no clearer than the first three paragraphs that I have been discussing. They appear to comprise an attempt to defend himself against accusations of anti-Semitism. After a couple of readings, it is not at all obvious that he succeeds in this endeavour. He does seem to make the point that Jews have a special responsibility to act against ‘neo-Zionism’, whatever you make of that, because, he alleges, ‘They can have a little more effect on it than others’. He also specifically recommends his colleague Professor Michael Neumann’s The case against Israel. I have been intending for some time to write a critique of Neumann, but will have to reread it first, a task so repugnant that I will probably defer it forever.

[written 2006 12 02]